Fascinating lists!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Monstrous Signs

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Haunted houses are easy. Well, the signs that a house may be haunted are easy to spot, anyway. Things seem to move of their own accord. Last night, your car keys were on the dresser; this morning, they’re on the kitchen counter, beside last night’s leftover Chinese takeout meal. You hear strange noises. Slime oozes down the walls. There’s a foul stench--and it’s not coming from the leftover Chinese food. Ghosts are seen--or something that could be ghosts.
The signs of the presence of a monster are not so easy to spot. But there are some, for those who have the eyes to see them. In his short story, “The Damned Thing,” there are signs aplenty of a monster’s presence. Invisible, its presence is known by its effects upon vegetation and, indeed, human beings. During a fishing and hunting expedition with his friend Hugh Morgan, Harker, who witnessed Morgan’s death, says the two men heard “a noise as of some animal thrashing about in the bushes, which we could see were violently agitated.” Morgan aims his shotgun in the direction of the noise, and when Harker asks what has made the commotion, Morgan replies, “That Damned Thing.” Harker then sees a peculiar sight, which he describes, to the coroner’s jury investigating Morgan’s death, in the following manner:
"I was about to speak further, when I observed the wild oats near the place of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable way. I can hardly describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down--crushed it so that it did not rise; and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward us.
A few moments later, Morgan is attacked, and, as he looks on in horror, Harker hears
“. . . Morgan crying out as if in mortal agony, and mingling with his cries were such hoarse, savage sounds as one hears from fighting dogs. Inexpressibly terrified, I struggled to my feet and looked in the direction of Morgan's retreat; and may Heaven in mercy spare me from another sight like that! At a distance of less than thirty yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm was lifted and seemed to lack the hand--at least, I could see none. The other arm was invisible. At times, as my memory now reports this extraordinary scene, I could discern but a part of his body; it was as if he had been partly blotted out--I cannot otherwise express it--then a shifting of his position would bring it all into view again.
"ll this must have occurred within a few seconds, yet in that time Morgan assumed all the postures of a determined wrestler vanquished by superior weight and strength. I saw nothing but him, and him not always distinctly. . . . “
One way to recognize the presence of a monster, then, is by its effects upon its environment. Other stories in which invisible or nearly invisible monsters may be recognized by such signs include the short stories “The Horla” by de Maupassant and “What Was It?” by Fitz-James O’Brien and the motion picture Predator, directed by John McTiernan.
Monsters are sometimes recognizable by their unique signatures, or distinctive marks. For example, vampires are often suspected when it is discovered that the throats of human corpses bear puncture wounds such as those that a large snake--or a bloodsucking fiend--leave as a result of slaking their thirst. There are a number of other ways by which to recognize vampires, according to The Vampire Hunter’s Guide, including:
  • Fangs
  • Red eyes
  • Long nails
  • Paleness
  • Reluctance to enter house without invitation
  • Hairy palms
  • Aversion to bright lights
  • No appetite
  • Never seen during the day hours (not always true with some species)
  • Possesses remarkable strength
  • Has quiet footsteps
  • Possesses knowledge about botany, with a large collection of soil in a house or in a vicinity
  • Resides in an abode deemed evil by others
  • Strange clothing habits
  • Evidences enormous sexual appeal
  • People who know him/ her frequently die
  • Rarely, if ever, discusses religion
  • Really bad breath
It’s hard to miss a demon: the claws, horns, tail, and cloven hooves are sure giveaways. However, a demon that takes up residence inside a person, possessing him or her, may be more difficult to detect, especially when he or she can be confused with the effects of organic or mental illnesses. In fact, until quite recently, the mentally ill were often considered to be people possessed by demons. A movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, makes it clear how difficult it can be, even for a priest who has been trained as an exorcist, to make the distinction between madness and demonic possession. This film also makes it clear how tricky the terrain becomes, legally speaking, when one seeks to exorcize demons that may or may not actually exist and the mad (or possessed) person dies in the course of the exorcism. It’s best to leave exorcisms to the exorcists or psychiatrists, but, for those who are too willful or stubborn (or stupid) to do so, these may be signs, according to the website Demonbuster, of the presence of an indwelling demon:
  1. Disturbances in the emotions which persist or recur.
  2. Disturbances in the mind or thought life.
  3. Outbursts or uncontrolled use of the tongue.
  4. Rcurring unclean thoughts and acts regarding sex.
  5. Addictions to nicotine, alcohol, drugs, medicines, caffeine, food, etc.
  6. Many diseases and physical afflictions are due to spirits of infirmity (Luke 13:11).
 Of course, when a writer finds it difficult to determine the signs of a particular monster--perhaps the fiend is one of a kind--the author can just make up an invention that has the amazing capability of detecting monsters, somewhat as Professor Xavier’s Cerebro can detect the presence--and, indeed, the location--of mutants among the human population centers of the world. Indeed, a machine isn’t even necessary id a writer becomes desperate enough. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy (often aided by Willow Rosenberg, a witch, or her mentor, Rupert Giles, a practitioner of the mystical arts) often identified or located various monsters and demons through the use of supernatural spells. Buffy also has a sort of “Spider sense,” which enables her to detect the presence of vampires the way homosexuals are sometimes alleged to identify others of their kind by using “gaydar.” In one episode, in which Giles was turned into a demon, she is even able to recognize, by his look of utter exasperation, the man in the monster! Still, it’s kind of cool, one must admit, to develop a mythos concerning demon spoor and how to detect it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Beyond Blood, Guts, and Gore

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Often, we think of horror fiction as a visceral genre, focusing, as it frequently does, on blood and guts and gore. However, the best horror fiction transcends the merely physical and addresses, albeit usually symbolically, those dimensions of our existence that are peculiarly human: the theological, the philosophical, the social, the psychological, and the technological. We are more than bodies. We are ghosts. We are spirits. We are souls. We believe in God, we think about the implications of our perceptions and beliefs, we organize as societies and nations, we emote, and we use tools of spectacular complexity and variety. The best horror fiction addresses these aspects of our existence.


One reason that William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) is a great novel (and a movie, released in 1973) is that it explores the problem of evil and the meaning of true faith, showing that, more than being mere belief, such faith involves trust in God; love for God, for oneself, and for others; and the needs to forgive and to be forgiven. The novel also suggests that evil is not only real but that it is also of a spiritual, rather than of a psychological or a social, nature (although evil may be expressed psychologically or socially--or in other ways).


Part of the reason that The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) is a good, if not great, film, is that it is both theological, questioning whether God and the devil actually exist or are merely metaphors for experience that is not fully understood, and philosophical, asking whether human beings should consider themselves to be nothing more than one of the many products of evolution. There are consequences for both world views, the movie suggests, and it is the filmmaker's intent to force a decision for or against one worldview and its consequences or the other Weltanschauung and its consequences. According to the film's director, Scott Derrickson:

What I wanted to do was write something that wasn’t propaganda, wasn’t about trying to persuade people to think the way that I do, but recognize the fundamental importance of that question, the central question — does the spiritual realm exist? Is there a devil, and more importantly, is there a God? And if so, what are the implications of that? I don’t care what you believe — those are questions to be reckoned with… Everyone has to answer that question. And in some ways everyone lives their life based on what they believe about that question.

Many of Stephen King’s novels examine the effects of community life upon the residents of small towns, focusing upon the pressures upon, and the consequences to, individuality and personality that social mores, traditions, and expectations tend to exert and have; among the best of these novels, perhaps (but by no means the best of King‘s work to date), are Carrie (1974), Needful Things (1991), and Under the Dome (2009).


Perhaps the best-know and certainly one of the artistically finest horror films that delves into the mysteries of the human personality is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which is based upon Robert Bloch’s novel of the same title (1959). How much of our behavior as adults is shaped by our childhood experiences, and, in particular, by the hand that rocks the cradle? If the challenges of childhood and adolescence take different avenues than is typical or normal, might a boy grow up to be a monster rather than a man? “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” Norman Bates declares, but, clearly, in his case, this was not true. Why? The film perhaps leaves more questions unanswered than answered, despite the psychiatrist’s explanation of the protagonist’s behavior at the end of the film, but it brings to the attention of its millions of viewers the importance of seeking answers to questions of nature and nurture, of learning and genetics. In the process, the film makes it quite clear that people are more than merely food for worms, for machines, whether of flesh or of steel, operate according to their design, without being affected by the attitudinal, emotional, or other cognitive functions that are peculiar to creatures that have been created in the image and likeness of God.


Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed (1977), in which a computer impregnates a woman who gives birth to a cyborg infant, explores the implications of the human-technology dynamic, admittedly taken to rather absurd extremes. It’s a reworking, of sorts, of the Frankenstein motif, wherein the monster is, quite literally, a ghost in a machine, but one of technological, rather than of divine, conception and origin. A 1977 movie, of the same title, directed by Donald Cammell, is based upon Koontz’s book.

It is interesting (and, one might add, significant) that several of these novels and movies are based, allegedly, at least, upon actual events. The Exorcist is based upon a titanic spiritual battle that Blatty heard about during his college daysThe Exorcism of Emily Rose is based upon the horrific experiences of  Anneliese Michel. Although Carrie is an entirely fictional work, the protagonist, Carietta (Carrie) White, is “based on a combination of two girls in King's past; one of them went to school with him, the other was a student of his,” Timeline’s Internet article “Carrie becomes King‘s debut novel,” points out:

The young girl King went to school with lived down the street from him when he lived in Durham, Maine. King recalls, in an interview with Charles L. Grant for Twilight Zone Magazine (Apr 1981), “She was a very peculiar girl who came from a very peculiar family. Her mother wasn’t a religious nut like the mother in Carrie; she was a game nut, a sweepstakes nut who subscribed to magazines for people who entered contests . . . The girl had one change of clothes for the entire school year, and all the other kids made fun of her. I have a very clear memory of the day she came to school with a new outfit she'd bought herself. She was a plain-looking country girl, but she'd changed the black skirt and white blouse--which was all anybody had every seen her in--for a bright-colored checkered blouse with puffed sleeves and a skirt that was fashionable at the time. And everybody made worse fun of her because nobody wanted to see her change the mold.”
Needful Things, King says, was inspired by the excesses of televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, and Under the Dome’s villain is based upon Vice-President Dick Cheney--as King sees him, of course. Psycho is based upon the murderous Ed Gein.

(It is also interesting and probably significant that several of these writers and filmmakers are Christian: Blatty is a Catholic, Derrickson is a Protestant, King is a believer but differs in his belief from traditional Protestants, and Koontz is a Catholic.)

Basing one’s fiction, entirely or in part, upon real-world people, situations, or events is one way to ensure that one has realistic, believable fodder upon which to base one’s theological, philosophical, social, psychological, and technological explorations, examinations, insights, and criticisms. That it is possible to do so underscores one of the points of horror fiction in general--and perhaps the biggest point of them all--which is that human beings, both actual and fictional, are more than blood, guts, and gore. There is a spiritual as well as a physical dimension to human existence; if there were not, horror itself would be impossible and there would be neither novels nor movies based upon this emotional reaction to external and internal evil that, like goodness, is both transcendent and immanent to human beings themselves.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fever Dream’s Opening Paragraphs (Chapters 1 through 20: Recap)

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


The opening paragraphs of Chapters 1 through 20 of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Fever Dream (like the rest of those which introduce the novel’s other 60 chapters) use a variety of techniques to accomplish several purposes. As I have observed in previous posts concerning this topic, these techniques and purposes include:
  • Setting the scene
  • Using figures of speech, such as similes, metaphors, images, and personifications to create atmosphere or tone
  • Involving the reader in the action
  • Beginning the narrative in media res
  • Creating a sense of immediacy (or “you-are-here”) for the reader
  • Generating, maintain, or increase suspense
  • Contrasting nature with civilization
  • Linking action to characters’ emotions
  • Identifying points of view
  • Characterizing characters by associating them with particular places
  • Introducing new or recurring characters
  • Alluding to past events in characters’ lives
  • Planting clues or red herrings
  • Describing places important to the action or theme
  • Linking one distant location to another, both of which are scenes of the story’s cosmopolitan action
  • Creating, maintain, or intensify conflicts
  • Posing rhetorical questions, both explicit and implicit, for the reader’s consideration

Renewal

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Like any other artist, the writer faces the challenge of keeping his or her writing fresh. How to make the tenth or the twentieth or the fiftieth novel, short story, or screenplay interesting to increasingly jaded readers or moviegoers, especially when faced with a myriad media, thousands of narratives and dramas, and a handful of plot possibilities, that is the question.

And it is this question that I will explore in this post.

Adopt a fresh perspective. Look at your art through the eyes of another artist. That’s what the makers of Alien did, inviting a painter and sculptor, H. R. Giger, to create the images upon which the film’s extraterrestrial predator is based. The result? Giger’s contribution pumped new life into the then-faltering science fiction-horror genre, making it exciting again. (And don’t some of George Lucas’ Star Wars aliens look a bit like the demons in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights?)

Offer something for everyone. This is the Dean Koontz approach to writing. His novels contain not only horror or science fiction, but also adventure, romance, mystery, and fantasy--something for everyone.

Get inside the characters’ heads. It’s not all about blood and guts and things that go bump in the night--or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Let your readers or audience know your characters--enough to love, hate, or sympathize with them--and the thrills and chills will skyrocket when danger threatens. (A good time to get inside their heads is when they’re alone or performing mundane tasks. In fact, a character should never be alone--even when he or she is alone--because he or she should be thinking and remembering and anticipating things that have happened and things that are likely to come, placing him- or herself, of course, in the center of these things.) Stephen King is especially adept at characterization, as his sales suggest.

Add a symbolic level of meaning. A story that is exhausted at one reading is usually one that doesn’t delve below the surface; in other words, it’s literal throughout, with nary the suggestion of meaning beyond the here and the now, which is universal, lasting, and, well, poetic. My post concerning The Descent offers a good example of a symbolic film.

Mix it up. Alfred Hitchcock said that a story is 85 percent chase, but the object of the chase changes. Sometimes, the good guys chase the bad guys (or the monsters) or vice-versa, but the guy (or the gal) can chase the gal (or the guy); a quest for a rare or precious artifact or relic can occur; a detective can seek clues among red herrings as he or she seeks to solve a mystery; a husband (or wife) can pursue a villain who’s kidnapped a wife (or husband)--or a child. There is only one limit to the types of chase a story can feature--the writer’s own imagination.

Introduce the unfamiliar. Maybe it’s the dreamscape inside a sleeper’s mind, or a virtual reality world, or a lost world, or a land that time forgot, or the hallucinatory consciousness of a psychotic patient, or the aesthetic theory of a sociopath, or the neighborhood (now long gone) in which you or your ancestors grew up, or. . . again, the possibilities are endless. (The unfamiliar can be informational, too: the habits of spiders, the anatomy of the marine life of one’s choice, the habitat of an extraterrestrial being, the physics of subatomic particles). Each in its own way, A Nightmare on Elm Street and King Kong employ this technique, both to great effect.

Alter reality. We take things for granted, believing that such-and-such a thing means this and nothing else and that our view of the world is more-or-less correct. Upset the metaphysical, the ontological, the epistemological, the ethical, or some other applecart; terror (and horror) may well ensue, as it does, for example, in 1408.

Adapt to a new environment. Create an imaginary world full of danger. Then, toss your protagonist (and a handful--or a horde--of other characters) into this dangerous environment so that they must adapt and survive or die. It’s evolution all over again, but in a completely different world or environment. Harry Harrison’s Deathworld Trilogy is an example of this approach.

Correct wrong assumptions. Base part of the story upon the incorrect assumptions that a character or a group of characters make concerning the significance of a person, place, or thing and then, when the time is right, redirect the story by having a character or a group of characters learn the correct meaning of this person, place, or thing. A whole series of false assumptions and corrected interpretations could advance the storyline and keep the plot interesting and fresh for readers.

In reading this post, one might think, the examples don’t show anything new. That’s true, but only because they are examples of novels and films that have already been done. You have to apply the principles I identify in your own way in order to freshen your fiction, just as the writers and works I cite did when they applied these principles. When all is said and done, the world around us (and inside us) is the source of innovation (and inspiration), but you and you alone must be the source of originality.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Writing the Murder Mystery

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


Typically, the story starts in media res, with the discovery of a body. Early on, perhaps in the second chapter, the detective is introduced. He or she is often slightly eccentric, unassuming, and of superior intellect, although he or she may disguise his or her intellectual superiority in various ways. During the course of the investigation, the detective discovers various clues and red herrings as he or she examines evidence and unofficially deposes suspects. Finally, the detective learns how and why the murderer committed the crime, identifies the killer, and an arrest is made.

To plot the story, the writer may begin with character (the killer, the victim, the detective, or a supporting character, such as a suspect or an eye witness); with scene (the when and the where of the murder); with the crime and its commission; with the motive (or motives) for the murder; or with the means by which the murder was committed. Eventually, all six of the following questions should be answered in a single sentence:

Who?
What?
When?
Where?
How?
Why?

Here are three examples, one fictional and two actual (but the actual ones could be fictionalized as novels or movies)*:


Adrian Monk [who] fingers a Mexican coroner [who] as the culprit who faked the cause of death (midair drowning) [what] of a parachutist [who] in order to lure the consulting detective south of the border so he (the coroner) could engineer Monk’s death [why] after Monk had tarnished the coroner’s professional reputation [when].

Three years ago [when], Casey Anthony [who] (allegedly) kills [what] her three-year-old daughter Calley [who] by drugging and asphyxiating her [how] in Orlando, Florida [where], so she (Casey) [who] can resume her carefree, single, party girl lifestyle [why].

After his mother dies [when], Ed Gein [who] shoots [what] Bernice Worden [who] in her hardware store in Plainfield, Wisconsin [where], so he can use her body as food, clothing, and decorations [why].



*Actually, Gein has been the subject of a movie, Ed Gein (2000), starring Steve Railsback and Carrie Snodgress and directed by Chuck Parello.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Fever Dream’s Opening Paragraphs (Chapters 17 through 20)

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


The opening paragraph of Chapter 17 of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Fever Dream locates the current action in New Orleans’ Tulane University, as the protagonist arrives at the school’s Health Sciences Center, downtown, on Tulane Street, to visit Miriam Kendall. The link between the building and “New York’s financial district” links the action of the novel that occurs in Louisiana with the action that occurs in New York:

The downtown campus of Tulane University Health Sciences Center, on Tulane Street, was housed with a nondescript gray skyscraper that would not have looked out o place in new York’s financial district. Pendergast exited the elevator at the thirty-first floor, made his way to the Women’s Health Division, and--after a few enquiries--found himself before the door of Miriam Kendall (90).
Chapter 18 opens upon a tempestuous note. It also allows readers another glimpse of Pendergast’s palatial plantation house, as he makes his way to his vast collection of books. The authors’ use of such words as “moaned” and “worrying,” even though they are used to describe weather conditions, keep readers in mind of the mental anguish and worry that Pendergast is undergoing concerning his late wife’s murder and his attempt to find her killer. Likewise, a sense of the novel’s ongoing conflict is discernable in Preston and Child’s use of such verbs (again relating to the weather--at least ostensibly--and not to Pendergast per se) as “thrashing” and “beat,” and the mystery surrounding Helen’s death is underscored by the authors’ reference to the “heavy, swollen clouds” that “obscured the full moon,” just as the “the remains of a bottle”--an odd adjectival phrase, certainly--is a reminder of Helen’s remains:

Pendergast said good night to Maurice and, taking the remains of a bottle of Romanee-Conti 1964 he had opened at dinner, walked down the echoing central hall of Penumbra Plantation to the library. A storm had swept north from the Gulf of Mexico and the wind moaned about the house, worrying the shutters and thrashing the bare limbs of the surrounding trees. Rain beat on the windows, and heavy, swollen clouds obscured the full moon (95).
One forgets, almost, as he or she reads the opening paragraph to Chapter 19, that the protagonist is investigating his wife’s brutal murder in Zambia nine years ago. In “Bayou Goula, Louisiana,“ as the chapter’s tagline indicates, surrounded by the trappings of a luxury hotel’s “palm-lined courtyard,” the FBI’s Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast sits as still as a sculpture, his pale complexion reinforcing the illusion that he is one of the “alabaster statues that framed the gracious space.” Far away are the African wilds--and the concrete jungle of New York, where his investigation occasionally takes him or his assistant, first NYPD’s Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta :

Pendergast sat in the palm-lined courtyard in front of the elegant hotel, one black-clad leg draped over the other, arms crossed, motionless as the alabaster statues that framed the gracious space. The previous night’s storm had passed, ushering in a warm and sunny day full of the false promise of spring. Before him lay a wide driveway of white gravel. A small army of valets and caddies were busy ferrying expensive cars and gleaming golf carts here and there. Beyond the driveway was a swimming pool, sparkling azure in the late-morning light, empty of swimmers but surrounded by sunbathers drinking bloody Marys. Beyond the pool lay an expensive golf course, immaculate fairways and raked bunkers, over which strolled men in the broad brown swath of the Mississippi River (99).
The “elegance” of the hotel is emphasized by the paragraph’s allusions to “a small army of valets and caddies,” “expensive cars,” “gleaming golf carts” (and a golf course), and “a swimming pool, sparkling azure in the late-morning.” Perhaps, the reader may think, Pendergast is at a resort. If so, why, though? Isn’t he determined to find who murdered his wife and to bring the killer to justice? Perhaps Pendergast is taking a break, although such conduct would be out of character for him, as the reader has come, by way of other novels in which he appears, to know him. In any case, his sudden appearance at a luxury hotel makes readers curious and, curious, they read on, confident of finding answers to these rhetorical questions which they themselves have raised, in response to the protagonist’s unusual situation. Moreover, the authors keep the tension simmering by suggesting that, although “the previous night’s storm,” which had seemed so ominous, “had passed, ushering in a warm and sunny day,” it is a day which is, nevertheless, deceptive, a “day full of the false promise of spring.”

The opening paragraph of Chapter 20, the tagline of which locates the novel’s action in “St. Francesville, Louisiana,” shows D’Agosta as a man who is out of his element. As a homicide detective, the New York City investigator, is a member of the middle-class, moral, courageous, intelligent, and loyal, but far from wealthy or sophisticated. Nevertheless, he finds himself “in front of the white-washed mansion” known (readers learn in the next paragraph) as Oakley Plantation, having arrived not in a Porsche or a Rolls-Royce, as the wealthy Pendergast might arrive, but in a “rental car.” However, more significantly, the detective is out of his element when it comes to the assignment that Pendergast has given him. On one hand, it seems “hardly more than an errand,” although, on the other hand, it involves a subject matter that is beyond his experience, relating, as it does, to “dead birds”:

D’Agosta pulled up in front of the white-washed mansion, rising in airy formality from dead flower beds and bare-branched trees. The winter sky spat rain, puddles collecting on the blacktop. He sat up in the rental car for a moment, listening to the last lousy lines of “Just You and I” on the radio, trying to overcome his annoyance a having been sent on what was hardly more than an errand. What the hell did he know about dead birds? (106)
It is obvious that D’Agosta does not relish his present assignment. He thinks it both beneath him and beyond him. The weather seems to agree, for “the winter sky,” readers observe spit “rain,” as if to indicate its derision for the detective’s present mission. This paragraph accomplishes what Preston and Child often do, involving a character in a situation for which he or she seems ill-equipped, almost invariably going on to show, during the remainder of the chapter, just how well, as a matter of fact, the character is equipped (although neither he or she nor the reader would have likely believed this to be the case at the outset of the chapter) to resolve the situation’s dilemma or problem--and, of course, D’Agosta will prove more than a match for the situation involving the ‘dead birds.” (If he were not, Pendergast would not have dispatched him to attend to it.)

Having analyzed the opening chapters of twenty of Preston and Child’s Fever Dream, or twenty-five percent of the eighty chapters of which the novel, as a whole, is comprised, I believe that I have provided a representative sample of their opening-chapter techniques, and I plan to move on to other matters. However, one additional post concerning these authors’ use of opening chapters will follow, recapitulating the authors’ accomplishments in the use of the techniques I have identified and discussed.

Until then, sweet dreams. . . .

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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